Where do you start?
Do you start with the incredible numbers? The list of postseason awards? The injury he battled through to accomplish all this? The Vikings’ incredible improvement, from three wins to 10 and a trip to the postseason?
It’s all there. It’s all part of Adrian Peterson’s season. Really, he has ruined it for everyone.
In an era where starting backs were drifting back closer to the 1,000-yard mark for rushing than the 1,500 yards of a few years ago, Peterson turned it upside down by totaling 2,097 — nine short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s all-time mark. Peterson won the rushing title by a whopping 484 yards. Only three others topped the 1,500 mark this season.
In addition to being a league MVP candidate and being named a Pro Bowl starter, Peterson won three major awards from Pro Football Weekly and the Pro Football Writers of America — MVP, Offensive MVP and Comeback Player of the Year.
“He’s just in a class by himself,” Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said. “In my mind … he’s the MVP of our league, he’s the best running back without question in the National Football League. Really exemplifies all the characteristics we try to embody as a team, a guy who is tough, he’s smart, he’s disciplined, he’s selfless in so many ways.
“As much as he wanted that record, as much as we wanted that record for him, it was more important for him that we won the football game. As I’ve said time and time again, there aren’t very many superstars that are willing to put the team first, and that’s Adrian.
“To come up nine yards short, but yet to walk away from it and say, ‘You know what, we’re going to the playoffs. We have a chance to do something special here in Minnesota.’ That’s what you need out of your superstar, one of the leaders on your team.”
The fact that Peterson bested some of the incredible individual seasons around the NFL to do so — Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, to name a few — is quite the achievement. Running backs these days aren’t supposed to do what Peterson did. Much less running backs less than a year removed from ACL and MCL surgery.
Peterson suffered the injury on Christmas Eve last year in Washington against the Redskins. It was his first carry of the second half, and anyone who watched it knew it was bad. Redskins S DeJon Gomes hit Peterson squarely, and Peterson said he recalled hearing three pops and enduring terrible pain from the hit. He knew right then he’d done some major damage.
Peterson spent Christmas Day at the Vikings’ facility controlling the swelling, and with surgery slated for the following day, he celebrated New Year’s in the hospital. Photos of him blowing a kazoo and wearing a plastic party hat while shackled to a hospital bed have since gone viral online.
From that point, it was about 200 days to training camp. For most of us, that’s an eternity. But for an athlete coming off knee reconstruction whose living requires him to plant, cut, pivot and run — all while defenders are chopping away at his churning legs — the idea of rehabbing and being ready for the start of the season appeared to be unlikely at best.
ACL injuries have cut down many great athletes, especially running backs, and stripped them of much of their power and speed, at least for the year following surgery. But Peterson was undeterred. He wanted to hear nothing about Terry Allen or Terrell Davis or Jamaal Anderson, backs who never were the same after ACL surgery. Peterson wanted to get going as soon as possible toward recovery.
The Vikings, led by head trainer Eric Sugarman, outlined a plan. And they did their best making sure Peterson stuck to it, stubborn and willful as he is. At times, they had to slow him down and remind him of the plan. Peterson nodded and then snuck off to do his own work on the side, including running and cutting.
Miraculously, Peterson returned to training camp in remarkable shape and was cleared to start practicing on Aug. 12. Although the Vikings held him out of preseason action, Peterson practiced and was on target to start Week One. In eight short months, he basically had rewritten the timetable for ACL rehab and set an impossible standard for any future sufferers of the injury.
Though clearly favoring his right knee, Peterson ran for 84 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries in the win over the Jaguars. He came back in Week Two with 16 more carries, and it was clear the Vikings were protecting him somewhat with a limited touch count and with more runs to his right where the knee would be better shielded.
Soon, though, there was no holding him back. His touches increased gradually with each week, and he hit a breakthrough against the Cardinals in Week Seven with 153 yards on 23 carries. Still, at that point, Peterson hadn’t had a run longer than 34 yards during the season — had he lost his extra burst?
That question was answered four days later against Tampa Bay when he exploded for a 64-yard score as part of a 123-yard game. Then, the following week, Peterson took a handoff straight up the gut for 74 yards, tackled just short of the goal line. That only seemed to fuel him more.
It continued a streak of eight consecutive games, starting with the Cardinals game and through a 212-yard effort in St. Louis in Week 15, with at least 108 yards rushing in each contest. He ran for nine touchdowns over that period as he charged toward Dickerson. Peterson totaled 1,313 yards in those games, the most by any player in NFL history over any eight-game stretch in a single season.
“You’d look up and be watching him running and you’d say to yourself, ‘Is this real? Is this actually happening?’ ” Vikings TE Rhett Ellison said. “I’d never seen anyone dominate at any level like that before.”
The hunt for 2,105 yards, Dickerson’s hallowed 1984 mark, got off track with an 86-yard game in Houston in Week 16 in which Peterson came out of the game late with an abdominal injury. But he was facing the Packers in Week 17, the same team he had broken off an 82-yard run against and had totaled 210 yards versus only four weeks prior.
The game was vintage Peterson. Although his long run of the day was 28 yards, it came on a 2nd-and-27 play. “When we call that play, that’s one of our bread-and-butter plays. It goes for 82, it goes for 65, and that time it went for (28),” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said.
Despite playing hurt — again — Peterson ground away. What he lacked in long runs, he made up for in crucial ones. Five of the Vikings’ seven plays on their first TD drive were Peterson carries. He ran for six yards on 4th-and-1 on the next drive. A two-yard TD catch — not run — to give the Vikings a 10-point edge. Tough runs of seven and four on the final drive.
A 26-yard Peterson run put the ball at the Green Bay 11 with 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter, but time was his enemy. As the Vikings drove for the game-winning score, they made the right move in playing for the field goal and putting the ball on the foot of prized rookie PK Blair Walsh. He nailed it, and the Vikings were in the playoffs.
Peterson came up nine yards short of breaking Dickerson’s mark.
“I thought about that,” Walsh said. “I thought maybe they’d give him one more (carry), just to see if he could do it.”
Peterson came off the field prior to the kick after the Vikings had called timeout to a mob of teammates. They celebrated him becoming only the seventh 2,000-yard rusher in league history and carrying the team on his back into the postseason. But Peterson had no idea he came up short of the record until Fox sideline reporter Pam OIiver broke the news.
The yardage mark was just a number. Not getting it didn’t define Peterson’s season. The journey, the uphill battle just getting back to the field, helped Peterson turn in his finest year to date. And while other things fell apart behind him, such as QB Christian Ponder struggling and WR Percy Harvin going down, Peterson became the player everyone leaned on.
“The fact that the offense runs through Adrian allows our whole team to know our identity,” Musgrave said. “We know where our strengths lie and we play to those strengths. Everyone has a role, which doesn’t mean that it’s any less important than Adrian’s, but we’re looking to do our jobs as well to complement Adrian’s strengths.”
The quiet, stoic Peterson also did his best to lead behind the scenes, too, consoling Ponder after his two game-changing picks in the regular-season loss to the Packers in Green Bay.
“After that game he just looked defeated,” Peterson said. “To be real, it was pretty obvious that the two interceptions cost us the game and it definitely showed on his face. I just did what I felt like I needed to do to help him get over that because this is a guy that we’re rolling with and we need him to continue to improve each week.
“I feel like I inspire him sometimes because I’m always saying things to him. His locker is right next to mine and I’m always saying little things to him that I know will stick. I don’t know how he’s taking it, but I know I did my job.”
With Ponder hurt and unable to play, the Vikings lost at Green Bay in the wild-card game and Peterson was held to a mere 99 yards on 20 carries. His season over, he quietly drifted back home to Texas, the same place he started his grueling rehab less than a year before.
But before he left, he openly spoke about the quest for 2,500 yards and coming back stronger. Based on everything we’ve seen this season, is there any reason to doubt he’s either capable or serious? The rest of the NFL should consider itself warned.